After spending hours on San Francisco's Embarcadero on April 9, 2008, waiting to get a glimpse of the passing Olympic Torch Relay, I unexpectedly discovered what almost none of the tens of thousands of protesters there knew -- that the torch had been secretly rerouted by city officials. This page tells the story of how I (and a handful of other people) would stop at nothing to track down the torch anyway...
(This is Part 3 of a three-part report. Click on the links above if you wish to jump directly to Parts 1 or 2.)
Sometime after 1:30 an official-looking car tried to drive slowly through the tighly packed crowd, with little success. I overheard several people speculating that it was a "test run" for the torch entourage. But if an unimportant car couldn't even make it through the crowd, it seemed, the torch itself -- which everyone would converge on -- would have no chance at all of passing unmolested. Rumors ran through the rally that the torch relay was being cancelled.
Which may have been a wise decision, as I noticed that various protest groups had brought fire extinguishers and had positioned them at points along the route -- undoubtedly foreshadowing an attempt to douse the flame when it passed, as happened during the torch relay a few days earlier in Paris.
Sometime around two o'clock I noticed something very odd happening on the outskirts of the protest. A few people -- almost all of whom were visibly holding iPhones or similar electronic devices -- began sprinting northward along the Embarcadero. I caught up with one man as he paused to scrutinize his iPhone, and asked him what was going on. He said that an underground text-message system had been set up by tech-savvy radical protesters, and if you knew how to access it, you could get minute-by-minute updates about the exact current location of the torch. Just a short time earlier, one of the scouts for the network had discovered the torch entourage traveling north up Van Ness Avenue -- several miles away, completely bypassing the main protest site. Logic dictated that the torch must be heading to Fisherman's Wharf by the "back way," instead of along the Embarcadero.
In a flash, people starting racing pell-mell north up the Embarcadero toward Fisherman's Wharf, in an attempt to catch the torch relay. But only a tiny fraction of the crowd even knew about what was happening, and an even smaller fraction had the physical wherewithal to sprint two miles. So 99% of the protesters remained behind.
Yet what choice did I have? I started running.
Things were not so simple, however. We were chasing a moving target. If I happened to pass an iPhone owner, I'd shout "Where's the torch now?" and get the latest update, if I was lucky. But the pursuers began to spread out through the streets of the city, and I soon lost any contact with the secret text-message network, so my fellow low-tech joggers and I resorted to a clever trick: We navigated by the location of the police helicopters hovering in the distance. (Three of them are visible in this picture as tiny specks in the sky.)
I felt as if I was chasing a mirage. The futher I staggered in the direction of the helicopters, the further away they seemed to recede.
Over a mile later, I encountered a cluster of exhausted Tibetans who claimed the torch was heading for a specific intersection. I followed as they dashed down the block, but yet again it turned out to be a wild goose chase: when we arrived, the torch was nowhere to be found.
I immediately headed off again after the helicopters, utterly out of breath, and reconnected with some folks wired into the mobile network, who said the relay had changed course yet again and was currently moving westward along San Francisco's Marina Boulevard -- heading in the complete opposite direction from the original announced route.
Onward we staggered. Most people were unable to continue running at this stage, and were walking as quickly as their bodies would let them.
I rounded a corner and -- huzzah! -- spotted police lights and a throng of motorcyle cops in the distance. The finish line was in sight!
With a fresh burst of speed I hurtled toward the commotion and caught the torch as it passed the Marina Green, the city's waterfront park.
I was fortunate: the entourage had paused briefly to change runners. I soon learned that there were in fact many torches, and when one runner finished his or her segment of the route, the first torch was used to ignite another torch held by the next runner -- just like in a real relay race, which explains why it's called the Olympic Torch Relay.
Phalanxes of police defended the torch as it was handed to the next runner. Which really didn't seem that necessary, since only a few hundred people were on hand -- not many protesters had found their way to the relay's location. I later calculated that I had run over four miles to reach the torch.
The new runner waved to the crowd, eliciting scattered boos and cheers from the meager (and mostly exhausted) audience.
An unexplained delay allowed me to catch my breath. The previous runner stood there holding the old torch, which the Chinese security team had failed to douse. He seemed unsure what to do with it.
After a few minutes the procession started up again. The police moved forward to their new defensive positions, and "El Pato" -- a yellow amphibious vehicle normally used for tourist excursions but pressed into service as the torch's military escort -- rolled forward.
After a short distance the torch was passed to a runner in a wheelchair.
Meanwhile, back on the Embarcadero, tens of thousands of protesters still lined the official announced Torch Relay route, waiting, waiting, waiting in vain for it to pass by, completely unaware that the torch was by now miles away on the other side of the city.
(Photo courtesy of Chicken Kiev)
As the procession entered the Presidio, a fracas broke out across the street. From what I could tell, a protester had attempted to breach the security cordon, with no success. Police tackled him immediately. It happened so fast, I only got this one blurry shot of the action.
Here's a video compilation of a few short snippets I took of the torch relay, including a bit of the fracas, and of me getting knocked to the pavement.
The torch was handed to woman who looked like a professional athlete, and without warning the procession rapidly accelerated. The cops guided her up a freeway onramp to Doyle Drive -- which is the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. As soon as she ascended the ramp, the cops turned on the pursuing crowd and formed a barrier, preventing any onlookers or protesters from following the relay any further.
The chase was on again. Spotting the torch on the elevated roadway up ahead, people swarmed toward the Golden Gate Bridge through the Presidio.
Some gave up in exhaustion and sat down on the lawn.
By this time fewer than a hundred people were left, out of an original crowd that must have numbered in the tens of thousands. We tried to find an alternate access point to Doyle Drive, but were thwarted at every turn by the police.
One determined Tibetan protester had somehow managed to climb up a barricaded staircase, but was immediately arrested before he could even get to the roadway.
The few remaining diehards scrambled up to a vantage point overlooking Doyle Drive, and discovered that the procession had come to a halt at an inaccessible spot on the freeway -- inaccessible on purpose, apparently.
Those in the final group who had cell phones received calls from other protesters monitoring the police radio: the torch had been transferred to a bus, and instead of going across the Golden Gate Bridge as we had all assumed, it instead was being driven straight to the airport, and thence to Buenos Aires, the next stop on the torch's global route.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom claimed this whole change of course was a last-minute decision -- that in fact they were deciding on the route as they were running through the streets -- but the well-executed and complicated conclusion to the relay proves that it had been planned well in advance. This was no last-minute re-routing -- they were trying to trick the protesters all along.
I managed to snap this photo of the torch bus as it passed. Behind it, in the distance, you can see Alcatraz. Which seems a fitting conclusion to the journey.
(If you arrived directly at this page without first reading Parts 1 and 2 of this report, click here to start at the beginning...)